Travellers from South Africa have to fork out R77,000 for 10 days of ‘hell’ in filthy, flea-ridden quarantine hotel in UK
Cold food, fleas and shoddy accommodation add insult to financial injury, while red list restrictions could last well into 2022.
For Britons Mick and Janet Green* the holiday in South Africa they had put on hold for almost two years has turned into a nightmare, thanks to the UK’s knee-jerk reaction to the discovery of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 and its insistence that all returning travellers from South Africa go into mandatory quarantine at their own expense.
Visiting their family in Hazyview in the heart of South Africa’s Greater Kruger region after so long apart was wonderful for the couple, but on 26 November, shortly before their scheduled departure home on 5 December, Britain effectively slammed the door shut on the country, putting it and several other southern African nations on its infamous red list.
Flights were cancelled while the British government scrambled to arrange quarantine hotels across the country for those flying home from the affected African nations, leaving Mick and Janet temporarily stranded.
When, at last, they were able to reschedule their British Airways flights home, it was only on the condition that they book and pay for their quarantine accommodation first. The cost for 10 days (11 nights) at the “government’s leisure” was £3,714 (more than R77,000), on top of the cost of an additional night in Johannesburg to meet the new flight times.
Exorbitant additional costs
Mick and Janet met many other stranded Brits at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport who were struggling to find quarantine availability to secure their flights home.
“One family of four we spoke to had spent almost £20,000 on additional accommodation at Johannesburg airport and the cost of quarantine for all of them, and were still waiting for confirmation of their quarantine booking when we left,” said Mick.
“For us, having to cough up another £3,714 was tough and emptied what little we had left on our credit cards.”
At what amounted to £338 (about R7,128) a night for hotel accommodation in the government’s selected quarantine facility — the Delta Hotel by Marriott in the Buckinghamshire city of Milton Keynes — Mick and Janet expected at least a comfortable, clean room, decent meals and some level of quality. Their expectations were to fall excessively short when, five hours after landing at London’s Heathrow Airport after an 11-hour flight, they eventually arrived at their designated quarantine facility just before midnight.
“We were met on landing at Heathrow by security personnel who escorted us to a bus with just six other people on it, all headed to the Delta Hotel in Milton Keynes,” says Mick. “This was to be our ‘home’ for the next 10 nights, so we expected to be made welcome. We were treated well by the hotel staff, but the amount of security was overwhelming.”
Filthy room, inedible food and things that bite in the night
The room itself left a lot to be desired, but they gratefully climbed into bed, hoping that their first morning would see things improve. Sadly, things most certainly did not get better.
Daylight revealed the true state of their room — and the level of filth they were expected to endure for the duration of their quarantine. A badly stained carpet was matched by dirty chairs, curtains hanging off the rail, disgusting bathroom facilities and a bad smell. The eventual arrival of breakfast did little to lift the mood.
Far from the full English breakfast that had been ordered the night before, a stone-cold omelette accompanied by a salad and soggy toast wrapped in cling-wrap with a single serving of margarine failed to cut the mustard.
“The food arrived in a cardboard container and had obviously not been prepared in the hotel,” said Janet. “It’s evidently being brought in from outside service providers and was absolutely inedible.”
At the time of writing, three days into their quarantine, Mick and Janet have yet to receive food that is either what they ordered or, Janet says, “suitable for human consumption”.
“It’s just atrocious. I wouldn’t feed it to an animal,” she said.
However, the worst was yet to come as on the third morning, Janet noticed bite marks on her legs, which began to get itchy.
“We joked that it must be bed bugs,” she said. “But while I was working on my laptop something jumped on to the screen from the bed — it was a flea. On closer inspection we saw that they were in the bed and the carpet.”
They informed the hotel management who sent a medic to their room. “She was a lovely lady, but what was she supposed to do?” asked Janet. “She suggested they may move us (although we don’t know if that means another hotel or just a new room), but my concern is that we will just take the fleas with us, and what if the new room also has fleas?”
That the British government has consigned them to a living hell in accommodation that’s patently not suitable for purpose is something that does not sit well with the couple.
“We did not expect an uber luxurious, five-star experience, but we certainly expected a clean, well-kept room and proper food,” Mick said. “We never thought we’d have to treat ourselves and our possessions for fleas before returning home, either!”
Red list till April next year?
When approached for comment, the Marriott call centre in the UK could not transfer the call to any appropriately authorised person and refused to divulge alternative numbers or transfer the call to personnel able to handle media inquiries. However, a reservations team member did confirm that the Delta Hotel in Milton Keynes is “closed for bookings” until 7 April 2022.
Does this mean that the British government intends to keep its travel restrictions in place until April next year? If so, that presents a disturbing reality for South Africa’s beleaguered tourism industry that’s hanging on by a thread after the reinstatement of the red list and associated European and US travel bans.
The news that this quarantine facility is to remain active until at least the end of the first quarter of 2022 does not bode well for tourism recovery in southern Africa. Nor does it calm the fears of hundreds of British travellers still stranded in South Africa, unable to obtain quarantine bookings that match with limited flights.
“Another family we spoke to at OR Tambo said they had gone to the British Consulate in Johannesburg and had been refused help. They were fast running out of money and had nowhere to go and no way of getting home. They could not afford quarantine and would not be allowed on to a flight home without first booking and paying for it,” said Mick.
Widespread criticism at quarantine costs and quality
Renowned British actor and filmmaker Richard E Grant is also in quarantine in a hotel in Gatwick after visiting his mother in southern Africa. He has criticised, on social media, the quality of the food he is being given and the standard of the accommodation in which he is being forced to stay.
A petition against the high cost of quarantine is gaining traction in the UK and there is pending legal action being taken against the British government in the British High Court.
The cost of a standard room for two people at the Delta Hotel in Milton Keynes is £66 a night — this rate is for 7 April 2022, the first available booking date on Marriott’s reservations system. Mick and Janet have been forced to pay £371.40 a night — £305.40 a night more than the going rate, fleas not included.
With no end in sight to the requirement of travellers from southern Africa to quarantine on their return to the UK and a possible protracted period on the country’s red list — from which South Africa was only removed in October after almost two years — the hopes of SA welcoming British guests in the near future are virtually dashed.
Crippled by fear
Rising numbers of positive cases of the Omicron variant, coupled with widespread resistance to the South African government’s vaccination programme, look set to confirm the northern hemisphere’s fear and loathing and justify its no-travel policies.
Thus far, the South African minister of tourism, Lindiwe Sisulu, has remained quiet on what measures are being taken at a diplomatic level to engage with the British government and the leaders of other European nations to reverse the travel bans.
However, the speed at which the current red list regulations were instituted and flights cancelled does nothing to assuage the fears of international travellers surrounding the risks associated with long-haul travel and the concerns about being stranded in a foreign country with no way to get home or having to go into quarantine on their return.
If Mick and Janet’s experiences are anything to go by, those fears are justified. Until the leaders of the world’s most powerful economies are informed by science and consistent, clear and universally recognised empirical evidence rather than hidden agendas, panic and blatant bias, the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic will be with us long after the virus itself is conquered. DM/MC
*Mick and Janet’s names have been changed at their request to prevent any possible recrimination during their quarantine.
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